In July (German: Im Juli.) was shot by Fatih Akin, a German director, screenwriter and producer of Turkish descent. While the film is often considered a lighthearted, feel-good drama and comedy, it has plenty of underlying messages about borders and immigration issues, and with a recurring theme of crossing paths throughout.
While by no means a classic (at least not yet), the film can be taken as a testament to a Europe of different times, before the introduction of the unified currency of euro (in 2002), the eastern enlargement of the European Union into the formerly communist states (in 2004 and 2007), and public smoking bans swept across the continent (in the 2000s).
The actual filming took place in Germany, Hungary, and Turkey. The scenes taking place in Romania are made of a series of still photos; this is variously explained to be due to budget reasons or failure to get a permission from the Romanian government to film in the country.
Watching the film is a good start.
Although the route can be covered through an indefinite number of transfers between trains, ferries and buses across Europe, a car at your disposal would be the easiest way to follow it. Have a read through the Driving in Europe and specific country articles for the legalese.
Most of the route is within the European Union, so travellers from the EU countries do not need much other than any form of official ID to cross the hard borders where they still exist. From outside the EU, in particular if you need a visa, a valid and multi-entry Schengen visa is sufficient for entering Romania and Bulgaria; otherwise those two countries still issue their own visas. Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary are within the Schengen zone.
Turkey has its own set of immigration laws, but they are mostly in line with those of the EU for the European travellers. For details, check the article.
Hamburg is a major transportation hub in northwestern Europe, but its intercontinental connections are limited — relatively nearby Amsterdam, Düsseldorf, Cologne, and Frankfurt are safe bets if Hamburg falls short of providing a convenient link in the direction you will approach from.
Spoiler alert! The below section reveals plot details.
Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a battered Daniel observes a solar eclipse, and notices a black Mercedes with a German number plate idling on the side of the road. He runs to it to ask for a ride. The car's driver, Isa, spraying to fend off insects from what seems like a dead body in the trunk, is surprised by the stranger and his fluent German, and shooes Daniel away before he had a chance to see what's hidden in the trunk. As Daniel tries to stop the car by standing in front of it, Isa smashes him to clear the way, and thinking he passed out because of the hit, reluctantly brings him to the back seat. Down the road, Daniel "regains" consciousness, and this time properly asks for a ride to Istanbul, where Isa is already heading to. Isa asks him what he is up to in Istanbul, Daniel replies that it would be a long story. So is the journey ahead, and Daniel starts to tell.
It's July in 1 Hamburg, and the summer holiday is imminent. Daniel, a shy, insecure physics teacher trainee who never ventures out of his comfort zone, is giving his lecture in the final hour of the semester in front of a class wholly uninterested in what he is speaking about. Off from work, he passes through the flea market on the way home as usual. He is intercepted there by Juli (German for "July"), a free spirit with locked hair who runs a stall selling trinkets and has a secret crush on Daniel. She sells him — almost forcefully — a ring with a Mayan sun symbol on it, telling that this would bring him to the lady of his dreams, whom he would recognize by seeing the same symbol on her. She also invites Daniel to a street party that night, hoping to meet and receive his interest there.
At the party, Daniel meets Melek, a German-Turk from Berlin who is just passing through, looking for a place to spend the night, and wearing a shirt with a sun on it. Thinking she's the woman of his dreams, Daniel invites her to dinner. As they are leaving, Juli arrives at the party, in an outfit with a rather oversized sun symbol.
Daniel and Melek go to a Turkish-run food joint, where Melek tells him that she will be near the mosque under the bridge in Istanbul at noon a few days later, in the backdrop of a picture depicting the said place hanging on the wall. Perhaps as an explanation as to why Daniel doesn't intent to make a trip out of the city this summer, they later go to a beach, where Daniel is mesmerized by Melek singing a Turkish song at a campfire. Then they head for Daniel's flat (probably in Sankt Pauli), where Daniel tells about his life until the first rays of the sun while Melek trustfully falls asleep on his shoulder.
The next day, Daniel drops Melek at the airport for her flight to Istanbul and, assured that she is the woman he has been looking for, almost immediately hits the road himself, to meet her under the Istanbul bridge.
Meanwhile, Juli, distraught by losing Daniel when she was so close, thinks she needs a change of scenery, and starts hitchhiking without any particular destination in mind — it is her personal tradition that the first car stopping by decides where to lead. As fate would have it, the first driver offering a ride is Daniel, on his way to Istanbul in the dilapidated car of his pothead neighbour, who asked him to care for his plants while he's off to Jamaica for a holiday, returning the favour by lending Daniel his car. Juli is ambivalent for a moment, but decides not to break the tradition.
By the evening, they are already in 2 Bavaria, but the rattletrap won't make any further. So they have to spend the night in Bavaria, constantly mocked by them up to that point as the ultimate nondestination. The nearby inn they have to retire for the night has only a single room available, with a single bed. With no other option, they agree to share the bed, but Daniel gives Juli a cold shoulder, much to her dismay.
The next morning, they discuss their onward route in front of a large, stand-alone map of Europe. Daniel wants to head down Italy to Bari, where he hopes to take a ferry to Greece or perhaps even directly to Turkey as this is the most foolproof way. Juli doesn't have the sufficient funds for a ferry ride — a fact Daniel clearly expresses he isn't concerned about — and suggests a route through former Yugoslavia instead. That isn't accepted by Daniel because of the ongoing war there. At that moment, a truck driver, Leo, stops by and offers a ride to Budapest, setting their itinerary as the tradition requires.
While cutting across 3 Austria, Leo invites them to a truck stop for a beer. Juli agrees, but Daniel stubbornly declines and stays out. Inside, Leo asks Juli if she thinks Daniel is the right guy and if he has ever fought for her. Juli says she thinks he is, and she wishes he would. Then Leo asks her for a dance, Juli somewhat unwillingly agrees, and Leo starts sexually assaulting her, despite the verbal objections of the other patrons present. Desperate, Juli screams for Daniel, and the convicted pacifist that he is, Daniel has had to use physical force for the first time in his life to free Juli. As they are leaving the place, Leo blinks at Juli, indicating that it was all a set-up so Daniel would have to fight for her.
Outside they reasoned that they can catch a boat along the Danube, since it flows into the Black Sea, and Istanbul is on the coast of that sea. They catch a ride on a barge, and Daniel gets stoned for the first time, on a joint offered by Juli. Discussing their lives interrupted by unavoidable episodes of laughter, they fall asleep. In the morning, as the ship is entering the Hungarian territory from Slovakia near 4 Esztergom, Daniel is noticed by the crew while he is looking for something to eat, and as a stowaway summarily thrown overboard into the river.
Daniel manages to the shore, and starts hitchhiking. A shabby and heavy-duty bus with an "ex-YU" country sticker (for former Yugoslavia) stops. It is driven by Luna, a femme fatale who supposedly cannot speak any German or English. She drives him to 5 Budapest, where she takes him to a bizarre club. After being treated his preferred menu, out of a very limited list, of fish and cola, Daniel is puzzled by the supposedly low bill of 10 German marks (roughly €5 of today). However, since he gets his wallet out of his pocket to pay, the full amount of banknotes in it is displayed. His next cola is drugged, and he spends the night going through a trip in the club and later in Luna's bus.
In the morning Daniel wakes up, bewildered and lonely, next to a stack of bales in the Hungarian countryside. Gone are his wallet, passport, and perhaps most importantly the Mayan ring. Shot at by the farm's owner, he waves a white piece of cloth true to his pacifist conviction. The farmer comes along, and agrees to give him a ride back to Budapest.
In a flea market in Budapest, he runs into Luna, who is about to seal the deal for his belongings in a stall. In the consequent quarrel, he manages to take back the ring, but nothing else. Luna escapes with her bus while the stall owner pursues Daniel. Daniel succeeds in climbing up the top of Luna's bus and a fast paced chase ensues across the streets of Budapest. That comes to an end at a police barricade; Luna is handcuffed and thanks to the intentional distraction she creates among the crowd of policemen and journalists by her seductive poses, Daniel gets to the cab of the bus and drives off, across the Chain Bridge to the Romanian border.
Arriving at the border with no papers, he is confronted by the Romanian border officer with perhaps one of the most often quoted sentences of the script:
|“||No passport — no Romania.||”|
Nowadays, the Germans in Romania are covered by the EU freedom of movement and do not need to produce a passport (but still may have to verify their identity by an official document on the border), but Daniel in 2000 isn't that lucky. He tries reasoning with the officer why he has to cross the border and how he is in a haste, and even tries sneaking in but backs off at gunpoint. Miraculously, Juli walks out of the shed just on the other side of the border and agrees to Daniel's suggestion that telling the officer they are married may help him. However, she has a condition: their "marriage" must be a proper one, and Daniel has to recite her words on how they would be together forever. Daniel is compelled to agree; the officer, who has watched over the whole "ceremony", decides to let him in, in exchange of the bus as a "marriage present".
Once in Romania, the duo decides to steal a car to speed up their progress, but since they are good people, they have to do so from one they figure should be a bad person. Running an eye over the people around, they decide a man who hits a begging kid fits the bill.
They drive across the Romanian countryside, past its communist-era abandoned factories, and through the national capital, 6 Bucharest, selling bits and pieces of the rickety Dacia they stole as spare parts for covering their travel expenses as they go. On the Bulgarian border, likely in 7 Giurgiu, their "no passport — no entry" headache persists, so they turn around, and before straying too far from the border, take a dirt side road to try their luck there. However, the road abruptly ends at an abandoned ramp on a narrow river.
They settle they do not exactly know whether that is the Danube, or even whether the Danube is the actual border river, so they decide to give it a go. Juli thinks it is impossible to cross by a car, but Daniel says he needs the car to be in Istanbul on the right schedule, so he does calculations according to his great physics knowledge, and resolves if the car is fast enough it can make the leap across from the ramp.
Juli wades across and nervously waits for Daniel to put his theory in practice — which of course doesn't come about as contemplated, and the car crashes in the middle of the riverbed. Daniel swims ashore, and they walk through an overgrown understorey to the... much wider actual channel of the Danube. Juli giggles and Daniel takes offence, remarking that Juli has never wanted him to catch up with his rendezvous. They cross the Danube by a canoe under the cover of the night.
They go to sleep in an open field somewhere in rural 8 Bulgaria. Daniel quickly dozes off, but Juli is heartbroken over Daniel accusing her of impeding his travel, and walks off. Daniel wakes up lonely in the middle of nowhere, again, and desperately shouts for Juli to no avail. At this point, he meets Isa.
By the time Daniel finishes his story, they are already in 9 Kapıkule, waiting in line to enter Turkey. Isa suddenly realizes Daniel's prevailing no documents situation, which may put his own endeavour at risk, so asks him to get off. During the short but heated discussion afterwards, they fail to see it has been their turn into the gate, so their lag arouses the suspicion of the Turkish border officer, who orders them out of the car. Isa's tough guy looks and Daniel's lack of a passport exacerbate the officer's suspicion further, and he wants to check the trunk. The corpse there is revealed, and the men are detained.
The men have a brawl while in custody, and after cooling down Isa starts to explain why he moves a dead body across borders. It was his uncle, who finally came to Berlin for a visit from Turkey after repeated requests. Everyone in the household and even in the neighbourhood were happy with his company, so he decided not to return and overstayed his visa. He suffered a heart attack and died straightaway. The family decided to transport the body secretly to Turkey for proper interment and in order not to face charges of harbouring an illegal "alien", and the task was given to Isa, as the youngest member of the family.
As Isa is ordered to the office to make his case, the officer forgets to lock the gate in a temporary distraction created by a hot lady being brought to the cells. Daniel just walks out and catches a bus to Istanbul.
The chief officer is very impressed by the story of Isa, who had to endure so much just to take his deceased uncle back to his homeland soil. He resolves to set him free immediately, but the bureaucracy requires that the birth certificate of the deceased should be produced. Isa tells him that the documents could be brought right away by his girlfriend, if only he is allowed to phone her.
On the way to Istanbul, Daniel's bus makes a pit stop at a roadside cafe. Melek is also there and catches the sight of Daniel. She very confusedly asks him what he is doing there. Daniel tells her that he has fallen in love with a girl, and is going to meet her under the bridge in Istanbul at noon that day. Melek figures out what he is into, and when asked, says she is heading the other direction, to take some stuff to his boyfriend on the border. Daniel grasps he should be no one else but Isa. Outside the cafe, they wish the best of luck to each other, and Melek departs. Daniel is reminded by the rising sun of his date, and sets out east.
Finally arriving in 10 Istanbul on the scheduled day, a few hours before his appointment, he walks past the Maiden's Tower (geographically inaccurate, likely added for cinematographic effect) to Ortaköy, the square of the mosque under the bridge. He quickly picks out Juli's braidlocks from the crowd. When Juli asks him where his girlfriend is, he starts reciting the lines suggested by Juli earlier in the journey for him to deliver to the girl he is after when they meet:
I've traveled thousands of miles,
I've crossed rivers and moved mountains.
I've suffered and endured agonies.
I've resisted temptation,
and I've followed the sun,
so that I could stand before you and tell you I love you.
The couple then proceeds to the motorway by the bridge to go to wherever the first car to stop heads for, and of course that car is none other than a Berlin-registered black Mercedes, with Isa and Melek in it. As Juli gets into the car, a large sun tattoo on her back waist is uncovered. Together, they head "f*ing south".
Don't be like Daniel: don't assume you can cover thousands of kilometres on an old jalopy, don't creep into freighter transportation without asking its crew first, don't accept drinks from strangers especially in weird clubs, don't argue with touchy border officers especially when you don't have any identification around and don't try to jump your car across rivers.
Some level of corruption still persists in the eastern part of the route despite the efforts to get rid of it upon the accession of those countries to the European Union.
For specifics, read up in the relevant Wikivoyage articles.
- The previous generations of German-Turks to the likes of Isa travelled along the Brotherhood and Unity Highway across former Yugoslavia on their journeys between their previous and adapted homelands, until the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s had made that route infeasible.
- Once in Turkey, many of them head for the extensive beach resorts along the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts as Melek and Isa do (perhaps after a brief call to the hometown, for visiting the living relatives or for funeral services, depending), and there is no reason why you shouldn't. Istanbul to Izmir suggests a relaxed trip for some of the popular routes.
- Salento ("the heel of Italy") — the scenes supposedly taking place in the fictional town of Solino in the next Fatih Akin film, Solino (2002), portraying an Italian immigrant family to Germany, were shot here, more specifically in Leverano.